An anonymous former state employee came forward Friday claiming to have evidence that the Arkansas governor’s office doctored documents and unlawfully withheld financial records that should have been made public under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
Attorney Tom Mars, who is representing the whistleblower, sent a letter today to Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) offering to have his client speak to auditors. Hickey yesterday requested that Legislative Audit, a nonpartisan agency independent from the executive branch, look into what’s come to be known as “podiumgate.”
The controversy concerns the $19,000 purchase of a lectern (or podium) by the governor’s office from an out-of-state events company earlier this year, as well as Gov. Sarah Sanders’ successful efforts to newly block access to certain governmental records.
Sanders recently pushed the state legislature to write a new exemption into the Arkansas FOIA in an attempt to prevent Matt Campbell, the Little Rock lawyer behind the Blue Hog Report blog, from accessing those records. Campbell’s FOIA requests uncovered the lectern purchase to begin with.
In the letter, Mars said his client can prove that someone in Sanders’ office altered documents that Campbell had requested through the Arkansas FOIA and that Sanders’ office pressured another government agency to withhold from the public documents that should have been made available.
His client is willing to give a statement to legislative auditors under oath, Mars said, and can provide documents for them to review.
These documents will substantiate my client’s firsthand knowledge of how certain persons in the Governor’s Office, including the Governor’s Communications Director, interfered with the production of non-exempt FOIA documents TSS intended to produce to attorney Matt Campbell, to wit:
a) by altering a non-exempt document to give it a different meaning and directing TSS not to produce the unaltered original document to Mr. Campbell;
b) by withholding other non-exempt documents, including documents reflecting some of the Governor’s Amazon purchases;
c) by removing portions of non-exempt e-mail threads; and
d) by directing the TSS lawyer who was responsible for responding to the FOIA requests to deliver a “flash drive” to the Governor’s Office with TSS’s proposed responses and thereafter returning the sanitized version to TSS on a “flash drive” – all for the purpose of concealing that the Governor’s Office had altered an invoice from Beckett Events LLC and deliberately omitted from the production of responsive documents a number of documents that were not even arguably exempt from the FOIA or subject to any legal privilege.
You can read Mars’ full letter here.
Mars, a former Arkansas State Police director under Sanders’ father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, has become a loud critic of the Sanders administration. A bombastic social media presence, he’s also a high-profile attorney for college sports figures. He’s previously represented Arkansas parents who sued over the state’s prohibition on mask requirements in public schools.
Cortney Kennedy, chief counsel for the governor’s office, was sent a copy of Mars’ letter. Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning has not yet responded to an email seeking comment. Henning is the “Governor’s Communications Director” referenced in Mars’ letter.
Upon reading Mars’ letter about the anonymous whistleblower, Campbell said it “matches exactly what I have seen and what I’ve expected was happening from the start.”
Campbell’s quest to uncover documents about government spending, and his subsequent lawsuit when Arkansas State Police attorneys denied him access to those documents, drove the governor and her supporters to seek a rollback of Arkansas’s longstanding government transparency law earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Campbell said he plans to refile a lawsuit today against the state police. Campbell dropped his suit the night before a Sept. 14 court hearing after testing positive for covid.
On Thursday, Hickey requested an audit into the purchase of that $19,000 lectern, bought from Virginia Beckett, one of Sanders’ longstanding consultants and owner of D.C.-based Beckett Events LLC, which identifies itself as “a full service events management company.”
Hickey also wants an audit on records and information newly removed from public purview thanks to a change in the FOIA. Earlier this month, lawmakers voted to shield the governor’s travel- and security-related receipts and records in perpetuity. The new exemption to the FOIA is retroactive to June 2022, six months before Sanders took office.
The governor’s retroactive power to withhold what’s always been public information, combined with the controversial lectern purchase, bear looking into, Hickey said yesterday.
The lectern invoice from Beckett Events LLC blew up into a scandal on social media after Campbell uncovered a series of emails showing much internal confusion among state government employees tasked with processing the purchase. A government credit card limit had to be raised in order to cover the exorbitant price tag.
While the invoice was paid in June, the lectern didn’t arrive for months.
Fanning the flames was news that Beckett and her business partner, Hannah Stone, helped organize the Jan. 6 rally at the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., which was basically the pep rally for a rebellious rightwing horde to mob the U.S. Capitol.
Beckett’s and Stone’s presence in Paris in June, at the same time Sanders was there, ostensibly on state business, sparked speculation that the $19,000 paid not for a lectern, but for a European trip. (With the governor’s travel records now retroactively off the table for journalists and the public to review, it’s hard to know.)
Earlier this week, Sanders’ office allowed the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to take pictures of the mysterious lectern, which turned out to be pretty basic. You can get the same thing online for a few thousand dollars, so the huge price tag Beckett Events LLC charged the state of Arkansas remains a mystery.
Photo of the $19,029.25 lectern purchased by the Sanders administration in June. The expense was reimbursed by the Republican Party of Arkansas, according to records. #arpx #Arkansas #ARNews pic.twitter.com/mERP6QvHHP
— AR Democrat-Gazette (@ArkansasOnline) September 26, 2023